Transition’s hidden costs
by Karin Mattisson
who have been hardest hit by these times of upheaval in the
former Soviet republic of Georgia are inevitably the most vulnerable.
The social sector is devastated, with little or no resources
to care for these victims of transition. It is in this void
that assistance such as that provided by the Red Cross can mean
for some the difference between life and death.
Georgia was once considered the jewel of the Soviet Union.
People enjoyed one of the highest standards of living, and
industrial exports covered the budget. Today the industries
are dead, and nowhere more dead than in Rustavi, in the south
of the country. Here, the people have no jobs, no homes and
“I really don’t know how we are going to sort
this out. Only God knows. But where there is no hope there
is no life,” says Ahemedov Shamizaatan, an unemployed
factory worker and 40-year resident of Rustavi.
No isolated case
Those most affected by the transition often remain behind
closed doors, either too tired or too sick to seek help. One
such person is Svetlana, a 90-year-old ethnic Russian. Left
alone to fend for herself, she spends her days lying on her
bed – an old beach chair she found in the garbage. She
suffers from acute arthritis, which has left her immobilized
much of the time. Her State pension of 8.5 laris or US$6 per
month can barely buy one kilo of beef and a few loaves of
bread, as well as pay for electricity and heating
Svetlana is one of 50,000 lone, elderly people receiving
food parcels each month from the International Federation.
By knocking on hundreds of doors in decrepit apartment buildings
and seeking out State institutions that have fallen through
the social security networks, the Georgian Red Cross and the
Federation are reaching out to many of these silent victims.
As Niels Scott, the Federation’s head of delegation
in Tbilisi, says, “These food parcels are meant to be
complementary to their diet, but for many people it is their
staple, with the occasional purchase of food being the complement.”
With the breakdown of the social sector, caring for the
most vulnerable is often left to non-governmental humanitarian
organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent
Sasha, a member of the Georgian Red Cross, runs a pensioners’
home in Rustavi. Most of the occupants are women. The building,
a former day care centre, looks suitable for demolition, but
the residents are grateful to have a roof over their heads.
Last year, the Netherlands Red Cross provided funds to rehabilitate
the home. Windows were replaced, walls were plastered and
painted, and a heating system installed. All this work meant
that the fatal cold of winter was kept outside.
In 1997, the Federation renovated numerous medical and social
facilities, providing heating and new roofing. This contribution
to renovating a small part of the health system brought some
relief to many.
The Surami Psychiatric Hospital outside Tbilisi is one of
five such hospitals to benefit from the Federation’s
relief programmes. Food, medicines and clothing were distributed
to the 61 patients who have no other home. Once busy, the
hospital now has only two or three sections open. Outside
are wrecks of buses that will never carry patients again,
but they have not been replaced. “It would be great
to have an ambulance,” says Doctor Malkhazi Chagorhvili
with a sigh. For him, mental patients should not be viewed
as society’s forgotten members as they are in so many
other places in the eastern European countries. But he has
few resources, other than the Red Cross assistance.
Like so many other small regions after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Georgia has suffered internal conflict within
areas seeking independence. Abkhazia, formerly a holiday resort,
is now surrounded by minefields and guarded by Russian troops
and UN observers. Most of the inhabitants have fled. Paradoxically,
Abkhazia cannot survive without Georgia, and Georgia cannot
manage without Abkhazia. But the conflict continues –
to the detriment of all.
There are about 200,000 internally displaced people from
Abkhazia in Georgia today. In 1997, the Federation assisted
130,000 displaced in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo.
Most of these people live with relatives or in collective
centres. The centres they occupy are old Soviet hotels with
no running water, frequent fires and deteriorated conditions.
Efforts to encourage people to return to their homes have
been going on for some time. The problem is that there is
often nothing to return to and people remain afraid. This
means that only a trickle of people have so far gone home.
on the future
Georgia is a critical link in the oil pipeline between Azerbaijan
and the Black Sea ports. This link could be quite lucrative
and became a substantial source of income for the country.
But the problems of the day – internal ethnic violence,
economic ruin and social breakdown – mean the road ahead
is treacherous. This is where aid organizations come in to
ease the suffering and assist those left behind in the turmoil
The emergency situation, following independence and the outbreak
of violence, is being replaced by longer-term socio-economic
problems. This development has led many aid agencies to re-examine
their priorities and update strategies. Paul Murray, desk
officer, outlines the future directions of Federation initiatives:
“The Federation is shifting away from relief and encouraging
self-sufficiency among vulnerable groups and the National
Society. This means that we are developing programmes to build
the capacities of the National Society and the communities
The work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a
lifeline for many in Georgia. As with other countries in the
region experiencing serious economic and social problems,
the pressure is on to reduce and re-design programmes.
However, it should not be forgotten, during this period of
re-evaluation, that for the time being the relief brought
by the Red Cross to hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia
is their only protection against the brutal reality of transition
in the former Soviet Union.
Karin Mattisson is a freelance journalist based in Sweden.
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